The concept of ethical standards has ever been changing. As the socio-political and cultural variables in this world change, the ethical standards also tend to change. With the increasing influence of new media or the Internet, increased trend of migration and globalization of cultures, ethical issues have resurfaced in the debates (See Rao & Wasserman, 2007). Especially with Globalization, there have been considerable efforts in finding common and universal ethical standards in media practices. We can realize that the Internet has redefined the traditional line of privacy and challenged many other beliefs. Besides, with the advent and expansion of 24/7 global and national news channels, the ethical practices seem to be redefined by themselves.
South Asia is a sub-continent. It has eight countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In terms of population, it is bigger than Europe, Australia and the Americas. Most of the countries in this sub-continent are the former colonies. Other two important constituent nations of this subcontinent Pakistan and Bangladesh were separated from India not more than 60 years ago while Bangladesh liberated itself from Pakistan nearly 37 years ago. Hence, the history of South Asia is about colonialism within and outside. Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are respectively largest religions here and the majority speaking languages are also almost similar.
Studying media in this sub-continent from historical perspective is more or less the study of Indian media. There is still the hegemony of the Indian culture and media even these days. In media ethics also the values of Indian civilizations like non-violence, patriotism, post-colonial feelings are largely influential. Influenced by globalization and global movement for right to information and freedom of speech and expression, they are also largely influenced by the ethical standards, set by the West.
In this article, I look at the ethical standards in media practices from various perspectives in this sub-continent. Here, by the Indian sub-continent I mean all the South Asian nations while Indian civilization (the translation of Bharat Barsha Savyata) stands for ancient civilization which stretched from the Indian Ocean in the South to the Himalayas in the north and Bay of Bengal in the East to the Middle East. Despite some of the indigenous standards like in the journalist’s code in the subcontinent, there are also almost universally accepted principles. I analyze these practices on the basis of both of these standards- one from the Indian and essentially oriental civilization and the other from the common principles set by the West.
Codes of conduct are the ethical values broken down and defined into practical forms. I have compared the major characteristics of the code of conduct for journalists in the countries. In the next chapter, I have analyzed some of the indigenous ethical standards like non-violence, patriotism and post-colonial feeling, fraternity and brotherhood and religious beliefs. Here, I have tried to see the difference in practice of some of the standards set by the set but which are also blended with Oriental values including Privacy and Freedom of the Press and of Speech and expression. Then I analyze the wweaknesses and challenges in the ethical pratice. In the final chapter, I suggest some common ground for media ethical practices in this sub-continent.
Concept of media ethics:
According to McQuail (2005: 561), media ethics are ‘Principles of good conduct for media practitioners, bearing in mind the public role to the media in a given society, as well as the claims of individuals.’ When comes to media ethics, they are obviously dos and don’ts about what to print or broadcast. They also focus on ‘how’ of media conduct like how the media practitioners should gather information and process them, how to handle these information and present them. As media is thought to be influential and sensitive profession, focus is also given on the conduct of the professionals. McQuail adds:
The relevant conduct relates especially to the ways in which information is obtained and to decisions about what and how to publish, especially bearing in mind the consequences that might follow for all concerned. In non-informational content areas, there are also a numerous ethical issues, although these are less likely to have been codified or play a part in decision-making. The claim of journalism to be a profession depends to some degree on the voluntary development and acceptance of ethical standards.
There used to be ethics since the beginning of human life in this planet and they still persist on this or that form. Most of the ethical standards root from human ethics or at large ‘humanity’. But these principles have to be redefined to suit the certain profession. According to Bertrand:
Codes of ethics are the most distinct and widespread examples of an accountability mechanism. Code of ethics for media professionals, like of those of their colleagues in medicine, law and other professions, constitute a controversial means through which professional organizations declare the values that guide their work, determine their social role and establish the professional norms they consider appropriate (quoted in Himelboim and Limor, 2008).
Another definition by Gordon and Kottross (quoted in Adhikary, 2007: 59) is more specific:
Media ethics concerns right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse actions taken by people working for the medial media themselves, of course, can not be ethical or unethical- only their staff members can, When we deal with media ethics, we are really concerned with ethical standards of media workers what kinds of actions they take.
Mostly the professional bodies take lead in formulating these codes and also look after implementation. This argument ‘a journalistic code of conduct refers to a set of principles of professional conduct that are adopted and controlled by journalists themselves’ by McQuail (2005: 173) also supports our assertion. However, in terms of the implementation of media ethics, an autonomous body like press council is entrusted with the responsibility.
3. South Asian Perspective: the other way around
It is obvious that the West took lead in codifying the media ethics and implementing it. So the ethical standards, which are studied widely, are essentially the western. It is the same case for South Asia as well because this region also learnt media from the West; they brought the printing press and also the newspaper followed by radio and television. But, there are some indigenous standards of the Indian civilization, which significantly influence ethical practices. And the rapid development of media in this sub-continent also makes it mandatory to look these indigenous standards:
One can argue that the modern media are Western in origin and ethical theories one suggests for the media are bound to be those that emerge from the West. However, satellite news channels such as Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and Zee News have proven that the traditionally cherished Western values of journalism are no longer viable in global journalism. The media, like democracy, is no longer just Euro-American. The complicated social and cultural composition of globalization makes it difficult to sustain a simple equation between capitalist modernity, Eurocentric cultural values and political form ( Rao & Wasserman, 2007).
In trying to find universal standards to the ethical practices in media, Rao & Wasserman (2007) have studied Ubuntu (truthfulness) in South African Philosophy and Ahimsha (non-violence) in Indian civilization. These two philosophies lay paramount importance in ethical standards in these sub-continents. The scholars assert that the essence of these two philosophies should be integrated with Western perception to develop ‘universal ethical principles for media worldwide’:
We believe that one cannot fit ubuntu or ahimsa neatly into any global media ethics framework unless one acknowledges the influence of colonialism and the importance of indigenous theories in postcolonial cultures such as South Africa and India…. While several attempts have been made to incorporate ethical concepts from non-Western contexts into media and journalism ethics frameworks, these theoretical frameworks themselves remain largely unaltered.
The increased globalization, global financial crisis since 2008, skyrocketing economic progress of India and china in the Asia have drawn ever-highest attention of the West (or the world) towards East (or Asia). Some of the scholars and economists have even speculated that within a few years, the world economy will be dominated by these two giant Asian nations. Apparently, the media are also being more and more professional and part of globalization. We have mentioned earlier that South Asia is the history of commonality and diversity, colonialism (within the subcontinent and western), division and unification. In this light, there is also an urgency to study the commonality and diversity in ethical standards in media practices while giving equal priority to the western influence.
Besides, there have also been significant efforts to see the commonality among South-Asian nations. Formation of SAARC in 1985 is the milestone towards seeking common identity among the people in this sub-continent2. Though, SAARC hasn’t been up to the expectation, it still exists and is working towards the goal, slowly though. A media campaign launched by Himal Southasian3 is getting stronger which seeks to find and emphasize the commonalities and even common South Asian nationality4. It is very relevant to analyze the commonalities and differences also in the practice of media ethics in this sub-continent.
4. Historical Development:
In comparison to the Europe, the mass media developed lately in this sub-continent. It were the English people who introduced printing press and eventually newspaper. The Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser also known as Hicky’s Gazette named after its founder James Augustus Hicky is the first newspaper in this sub-continent. It began weekly publication in 1780, more than a century after the Oxford Gazette’s publication in London in 1665. The radio was introduced in India in 1932 and television in 1959 while Internet was introduced in 1990s.
The media, except print, in this sub-continent were mostly initiated by the government and largely remained under its control. So, the government’s orders used to be the guiding principles for the media practitioners. This notion still persists for the state owned media in the countries like Nepal (Radio Nepal, Nepal television and Rastriya Samachar Samiti- News Agency), Maldives (Voice of Maldives- Radio and TV Maldives), Bhutan (Kuensel- newspaper, Radio Bhutan and Bhutan Television) and Bangladesh (Bangladesh Betar – radio, Bangladesh Television, Bangladesh Sangbad Sanstha- news Agency). They are largely outside the purview of professional standards and at many times the employees of these organizations are treated as the government employees rather than media professionals. Some countries like Maldives and Bhutan are just seeing the rise of private media and the ethical concerns are about to surface. However, there is the long tradition of private media and professional code of ethics in countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Though the history of codifying media ethics is shorter in this sub-continent, it is not that media performed unethically. In the past, the media were guided by common human values and the ethical standards of the Indian Civilization. Hutchins commission is credited with setting the notion that journalists should be guided by ethical standards in 1940s. However, the movement towards codifying journalists’ code of conduct had begun around the end of the 1800s, which got momentum in the first quarter of the 1900s. ASNE cannons of journalism is the first such documented code of ethics which was approved in 1923. According to McQuail, (2005: 173), at the same time, the codes were being formulated in European countries including France, Sweden and Finland and eventually in all countries. The commission strongly supported the cause for ethical standards while saying that media should be free but self-regulated and they should follow agreed code of ethics and professional conduct.
Christians and Nordenstreng (as quoted in Rao & Wasserman, 2007) see the origins of social responsibility theory as a basis for global media ethics. The Commission also gave basic guidelines for ethical standards while asserting that news media should be truthful, accurate, fair, objective and relevant. These standards have been widely accepted by many of the professional organizations or media persons. These principles also largely influence the ethical practices in South Asia. According to McQuail (2005: 174), most frequently found ethical principles in journalistic codes are:
• Truthfulness of Information
• Clarity of Information
• Defence of the public’s right
• Responsibilities in forming public opinion
• Standards in gathering and presenting information
• Respecting the integrity of the sources
However, Hutchins Commission basically focused in improving the US media in the 1940s while, South Asian media would have never seen the political imbalance, sensationalism, commercialism, and monopoly tendencies felt in US media then. So, there are also debates whether the ethical standards stemming from this theory can exactly be applicable to the media in other countries. Rao and Wasserman (2007) add:
Though this interpretation of social responsibility theory is more transformational, we want to argue that ethical theories from postcolonial contexts may indeed problematize the core values of social responsibility theory as it has been understood in the debate until now. This, in our opinion, calls for a reconsideration of the theoretical frameworks underpinning the quest for global media ethics.
Besides, the ethical practices are also closely related with the system of press, ownership patterns and Media Freedom. Where government dictates the media, they can’t perform independently and just abide by the legal and regulatory obligations. The history of the media ethics is longer in the countries, which earlier opened for private ownership or liberated the media market. The market aspect of media also should be taken care of while looking at the historical perspective.
Present condition of media ethics in South Asian countries:
Afghanistan has undergone many transitions in all these years since the World War II. It remained the battleground between the US and the USSR in the cold war period between 1970s and 1990s. Besides, decade long rule of Talibans in the 1990s simply refrained its people with the basic rights. The freedom of speech and expression was beyond imagination during Taliban regime in the 1990s. It is facing another US invasion since 2001 and the situation is extremely volatile.
The country’s first experiment with an independent media sector began in the late 1940s with newspapers. However, it ended abruptly in 1953 when Prime Minister Mohammad Daud became prime minister and ordered the closure of independent newspapers. According to Tarzi (2006):
Afghan Media reacquired its freedom with the promulgation of the 1964 Constitution. And this era continued for nearly a decade until 1973, after Mohammad Daud led a coup d'etat that ended the country's monarchical system and also curbed many rights of the people. The result was nearly three decades of intense strictures on a free media, culminating in the hard-line Taliban regime's crackdown until it was ousted by international military intervention in late 2001(Tarzi, 2006).
After US backed civilian government and promulgation of new democratic constitution in January 2004, there are hopes that the people will get more freedom and rights and the media will flourish. The new constitution describes freedom of expression as "inviolable" and guaranteed to every Afghan in the form of "speech, writing, illustration, or other means." However, according to Tarzi, one of the articles contradictorily stipulates, "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."
Another distinctiveness of Afghanistan with other South Asian countries is that it is closer to Middle East. And hence, the ethical practices here are also closer towards the values in Middle East, which are influenced by the religious beliefs and ideology of Islam and the Arab or Middle East civilization. It is just the growing democracy and professional organizations are yet to be formed and the codified ethical standards are expected. With a functioning democracy, media are expected to perform in more professional way.
Bangladesh has the long history of private press. In fact, the first newspaper in the sub-continent ‘The Bengal Gazette’ carried the name ‘Bengal’ which was published from Calcutta, a part of Bengal presidency.5 So, the early history of the press in Bangladesh is inextricably linked to India. These days, Dhaka used to be the second major center after Calcutta for the concentration of newspapers and magazines. Two of the earliest magazines in Bengali — Kabita Kushumabati and Dhaka Prakash—were published around 1860 in Dhaka.
Newspapers share this pride of the history while it opened broadcast media for private sector only after 1999. According to BBC country profile (2008), ‘Bangladeshi newspapers are diverse, outspoken and privately-owned. The print media are privately owned and there is a strong tradition of owner-editorship.’ However, a few newspapers, even broadsheet dailies and journalists are criticized for being partisan.
The Press Council Act 1974 has entrusted the Press Council (PC) with preserving the freedom of the press. Its responsibilities include responsibility for devising a code of conduct for maintaining high professional standards. The Council has so far failed to create consensus on the code of conduct among the journalists and their professional bodies. Besides, journalists in Bangladesh have also failed to be united under an umbrella organization. The rift between the journalists favoring two major parties, pro-Awami League and Pro-Bangladesh Nationalist Party is distinct and bitter, which has largely hampered the professional discourses in journalism. Currently, 23-point code of conduct formulated by the Press Council in 1993 and revised in 1999 is in place while Code of ethics adopted by Newspapers, News Agencies and Journalists of Bangladesh in 1993 is also in place. These two codes are almost similar. The earliest code of conduct for the Press was formulated in 1983-84 by the Press Council.
Bhutan is a new democracy. Before the former King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk stepped down in December 2006, media meant only state-owned newspaper- Kuensel (bi-weekly, English), Radio (Bhutan Broadcasting Service), Television (Bhutan Television) and Online (kuenselonline.com). After the new constitution was promulgated in 2007, the parliamentary election was held in March 2008 and new King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk was crowned in November 2008 it is felt that road to free media has opened in Bhutan. It is only in October 2008 the first daily in the country; Bhutan Today was launched from the private sector.
As per the new provisions, the Bhutan Infocomm and Media Authority as the regulatory body will develop codes of practice related to the conduct of journalists. It will also look into maximizing the independence of editors and reporters.
With a very short history of media and just the dawn of private media, ethical practices in Bhutanese media are yet to be discussed. However, the Buddhist ideology largely dominates the ethical practices. Besides, the King is taken as the symbol of unity and media are explicitly or implicitly obliged to this institution and rarely dare writing against.
When we look upon the history of media practices in South Asia, it is almost like the history of Indian media except Afghanistan ‘which is more akin to Middle East’ (Guanaratne, 2000: 1). The press and the journalism entered in the sub-continent through India. James Augustus Hicky began the first Newspaper ‘Bengal Gazette’ also known as ‘Calcutta General Advertiser’, the first newspaper in the subcontinent in 1780. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Indian press had already been divided into a mission journalism- for or against the British Rule. However, Patriotism, non-violence (Ahimsha) and cooperation seem to be the pillars of the ethical standards, though they were not codified anywhere.
After independence in 1947, India was divided and Pakistan was formed. This time also, media steadily advocated non-violence and patriotism. Again in 1971, the then East Pakistan liberated itself and an independent Bangladesh was born. Hence, though they are divided now, they have united history. Still, the Indian media set trends to the media in other countries, which is at many times criticized as Indian hegemony.
The press, initially newspapers, in this sub-continent, as mentioned above were initiated by private sector. However, the electronic media remained for long under government control. It is only after 1990s that privatization was seen in electronic media with India licensing two giant media groups Zee (October, 1992) and STAR (Satellite Television for Asia Regions, a company of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.- 1991) to broadcast in its territory. Despite this liberalization, Indian media have largely been able to exhibit their commitment towards above-mentioned basic ethical principles.
At the same time when there were efforts in the US and Europe to set up professional standards in the conduct of journalists, there were efforts in India as well. Press Guild of India was founded in 1925 while All India Newspaper Editors' Conference was established in 1940 for the professional conduct in journalism. According to Kundra (2005), the first documented code of ethics was the code of All India Newspaper Editors’ Conference endorsed in 1953. This code also was however, much influenced by the Western standards. Kundra adds:
(the code) asks journalists to serve and guard public interest; to be alive to fundamental human and social rights; to observe restraint in reports dealing with tensions leading to or likely to lead to public disorder; to assume responsibility to all information published; to respect confidence; to voluntarily correct inaccurate information; and to give fair publicity to such correction; not to exploit their status for non-journalistic purposes; not to allow personal interest to influence professional conduct; not to demand or accept bribe; and not to give currency to rumors or loose talks affecting the private life of individuals.
This code was much in compliance with western standards. However, as India was divided for the sake of religion not very long ago, an increased urgency was felt that media do not incite further communal disturbances. Realizing this urgency, the conference again in 1968 separately adopted ‘Code of Ethics for the Press in Reporting and Commenting on Communal Incidents’ in 1968. Still these two codes largely guide Indian media through professional conduct.
Press Council of India is also given right ‘to build up a code of conduct for newspapers, news agencies and journalists in accordance with high professional standards’ by Press Council Act 1978. It has been formulating code of ethics and also monitoring it. It periodically updates these codes and also gives directives occasionally as and when necessary.
Maldives promulgated its new constitution in August 7, 2008 and the November election formally ended 30 year’s dictatorial rule of President Maumun Abdul Gayoom. During Gayoom regime, the people of Maldives were denied fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. Despite suffering, independent news groups like Minivan and Manas Magazine tried to protect the people’s rights in these difficult years. Where there are strict laws, ethics are less talked. So is the case with Maldives.
Today there are 6 daily newspapers publishing articles both in Dhivehi and English, half a dozen weeklies and two-dozen magazines. The country's first private radio station opened in 2007 and a handful of private TV stations have been licensed. Now, there are three private and two state-owned FM stations on air. It seems that private media have come a long way in Maldives and yet the formation of press council, professional bodies of the journalists and codification of ethical standards for media are expected in the days ahead.
As an isolated country of archipelago in the Indian Ocean, patriotism dominates other ethical standards. Also, Muslim ideology affects the principles while it has very well opened to the West and these principles are also guiding ethical practices for Maldivian media.
Nepal and Bhutan are two countries in South Asia, which remained independent throughout the history. These two beautiful Himalayan nations share this pride. However, in terms of democratic practices, they are rather new democracies. Though Nepal tried experiment with democracy after liberating from family rule of Ranas in 1951, it didn’t succeed and frequently Shah Kings backed by army seized the power and imposed dictatorial rule. Lately, People liberated themselves from dictatorial rule of King Gyanendra in 2006 and it is now a Republican Country since May 2008.
However, the period after 1990 is remarkable for the longer experiment with democracy and liberalization of media market. Many people believe that it was the media that best benefited from the democracy after 1990. Huge Private investment poured into Newspapers, Radio and lately in Television. They are somehow institutionalized and preofessionalised.
It has comparatively longer history of the practice of media ethics. The journalists formed their professional organization and formulated a code as late as in 1967. However, the then government seems not to accept it and tried to dictate journalists through press council in favor of the Panchayat system. This hide and seek continued unless people got the democracy in 1990. Since then, there seems to be good relationship between the professional umbrella organization, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and the Press Council. The Press Council Act 1992 gives sole right to formulate and implement the code of conduct for the journalists to the Council. According to Kshetri (2007), however, the journalists have become able to persuade the institution and currently existing code of conduct 2003 was formulated in coordination with the FNJ. It was amended and revised in 2008 to comply with the new Constitution of Nepal, 2007.
The first professional organization of the journalists was All Pakistan Newspapers Society. It is an organization of all the publishers of Pakistan, founded in 1953. However, this organization rather protected and worked for the business of the publishers. Journalists later formed Committee of the Press, which adopted a code in 1972. Committee of the Press code, 1972 is the first and still existing code for journalists in Pakistan though there has been rise in the number of professional organizations.
The practice of Press Council, however, seems to be late in Pakistan. It was only in 2002 that the Press Council was formed through an ordinance from the military ruler General Parvez Musharraf. Article 3 (1) of the ordinance states that ‘there shall be established a Council by the name of the Press Council of Pakistan to implement the Ethical Code of Practice, as set out in the Schedule to this Ordinance and to perform such other functions as are assigned to it under this Ordinance or the rules and regulations made thereunder’. Hence, the major job of the council is to implement the code of conduct to the journalists.
Besides, article 8 (iv) states that the duty of the council is ‘to revise, update, enforce and implement the Ethical Code of Practice for the newspapers, news agencies, editors, journalists and publishers as laid down in the Schedule to this Ordinance and 8 (v) to receive complaints about the violation of Ethical Code of Practice relating to newspapers, news agencies editors and journalists; 8 (vi) to appoint Enquiry Commissions to decide complaints at the head office, all provincial sub-offices and regions, as the case may be necessary for its proper functioning. However, the journalists are not satisfied with the formation of the Council.
South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA)’s national media declaration which was adopted by the Second National Conference in 2004 criticized the Press Council of Pakistan Ordinance as ‘an example of the executive misappropriating the idea of an autonomous self-regulating body within the media community. Regarding council’s right to formulate and implement code of conduct, it added, ‘While all codes of ethics are attractive, all codes that infringe the principles of voluntary restraints and reflect the states' obsession with disciplinary mechanisms under its own aegis have nowhere produced results desired by the community.’
In order to facilitate the relations between the government and the press, Press Council was established under a 1973 law in Sri Lanka, which came up with the code of ethics for Journalists in 1981. However, the Press Council-Press relationship doesn’t seem smooth. The journalists oftener criticize this body of acting against or restricting the press freedom in favor of individual rights. The latest height of tension was seen in 2002 when the journalists formed an independent Press Complaints Commission and sought for an alternative to the State sponsored Press Council.
Journalists in the island nation in the Indian Ocean have formed their own unions to redress their grievances and also seek to define the ethical standards by themselves. A prominent professional organization, Sri Lankan Environmentalist Journalists Forum has formulated its own Code of Ethics for its members.
5. Major Dimensions of ethics
The ethical standards as mentioned by McQuail (2005: 174) and quoted above are found in almost all countries. It proves that accepted Media ethical standards in South Asia, at least in the documents are in compliance with Western standards. Though, obviously their practice differs from one country to another and largely to the Western practices. I would like to sum up the most important dimensions and common principles found in the media ethics in South Asian Media as following:
Rao and Wasserman (2007) have studied the Ahimsa (Non-Violence) in Indian Media ethics where they challenge Western interpretation of the principle. They assert that unlike western interpretation of ‘no harm to the innocent’ (Christians & Nordenstreng as quoted in Rao and Wasserman, 2007), the Ahimsa stands for rather larger definition, which includes ‘friendship, non-enmity, and love’. They add:
‘Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa has strongly influenced media in India especially since Gandhi was well recognized as a journalist and a formidable political force in the subcontinent. He started four major news weeklies in his life-time, Indian Opinion in South Africa and Young India, Harijan, and Navjivan in India (Iyenger, 2001; Wolpert, 2001). In these newspapers Gandhi would often write columns expressing his views on media, politics, and philosophy. His views of ahimsa were thus fully integrated into the kind of Indian journalism which evolved during and after the Independence movement.’
Of Course, Gandhi is inarguably the proponent of the concept of Ahimsha in modern days. But nearly 2,500 ago, another South Asian Gautam Buddha unabatedly promoted peace and non-violence. Gandhi is no doubt at the top but his philosophy also takes the strength from the Buddhism, which the scholars even including Rao and Wasserman (2007) have failed to identify.
Patriotism and post-colonial feeling
All of the countries in the sub-continent excluding Nepal and Bhutan are the former colonies. They have now or then gone through liberation or independence war while, Nepal has also seen three popular movements against family or dictatorial regimes. So, patriotism is closely related with anti-colonial feeling, while in Nepal it goes together with democratic movements.
Notably, except Bhutan and Maldives, all other countries have undergone through or are still facing separatist insurgency and patriotism matters most for these countries. But, as some media propagate patriotism, it is difficult for the dissent voices, which may support the insurgency. The explicit victim of such insurgency is Pro-Tamil press in Sri Lanka, Pro or anti-Taliban Press in Afghanistan over times Pro-Taliban press in Pakistan and Pro-Liberation Bangla media during 1971 Liberation war. Still, as the two countries are locked in skirmish over the control of Kashmir, patriotism for India and Pakistan is related with the sentiments against one another.
The youngest country to liberate is Bangladesh. It liberated itself from Pakistan in 1971. Many of the fighters of the Liberation war are in the leadership in Bangladesh and patriotism here is driven by somehow anti-Pakistani sentiment. That can clearly be seen in the first point in the code formulated by the Bangladesh Press Council that ‘the war of liberation, its spirit and ideals must be sustained and upheld, and anything repugnant relative to the war of liberation and its spirit and ideals must not be printed, published or disseminated in any manner by the press’.
This is also evident in the code of conduct adopted by newspapers, news agencies and journalists of Bangladesh in 1993. Two points explicitly express this feeling: ‘the programmes shall eulogise the role of the genuine freedom fighters during the wars of liberation (Clause 26).’ The other clause (24) lays that ‘All government employees and the people in general shall be made aware of the need to preserve national resources.’
Brotherhood and Fraternity
As mentioned by Gunaratne (2005), the South Asian Continent is also influenced by Confucianism and collective comfort precedes the individual comfort. The former is also strongly advocated in the religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddha advocated peace and harmony in the world. Even before the trace of globalisation, Gautam Buddha was advocating world fraternity (Bishwa Bandhutwa) from Nepal. The World Fraternity in modern days might have been promoted by British who ruled India for centuries so that their existence won’t be questioned. Yet, friendship and brotherhood matter a lot and make the founding pillars of ethics.
Rao and Wasserman (2007) include a few examples of the media which have been promoting the brotherhood and fraternity:
The Tribune, a newspaper based in Chandigarh in the state of Punjab, has for the past few years published many stories that show ‘brotherly love’ between religious communities, including stories that depict connections between Punjabi families in East Punjab (India) and West Punjab (Pakistan). One of their most successful news series has covered Pakistani visitors who have come back to Punjab for the first time since Punjab was partitioned. Often, such visitors are Muslims who visit friends and family, both Muslims and Hindus. The news stories highlight the meetings of the families and trace their life histories.’
They have quoted H.K. Dua, the editor-in-chief of The Tribune as saying that the newspaper advocates stories about communal harmony for the ‘greater good of cross-border relationship’. It is also evident that though, there have been many wars, media are hardly found promoting communal feelings.
The practice of Brotherhood and Fraternity is also a dominant religious ideology in this region. The philosophies ranging from Buddhism to Confucianism promote peace, friendship, fraternity and collective self. Certainly, this region is very much influenced by these philosophies and media ethics is one of the reflections of them.
The fraternity and brotherhood in media ethics is also an influence of these country’s foreign policies. Panchsheel (Five Principles of peaceful coexistence) provide the strongest foundation for foreign policy of almost all these countries. These Principles were propounded and agreed in bilateral talks between India and China in 1954. The five principles are:
i. Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,
ii. Mutual non-aggression,
iii. Mutual non-interference,
iv. Equality and mutual benefit, and
v. Peaceful co-existence.
These principles later served as the basis of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM movement itself was an effort to mediate between the Soviet block and US block during the cold war and avoid the ‘Third World War’. Most of the South Asian nations were not part in the Cold War and joined the NAM while some countries like India and Nepal played significant role in the movement. There is a sense and pride of some sort of ownership over these five principles as indigenous Asian concept. And, the promotion of the world fraternity, peace and friendship are also the pillars in the practice of media ethics in this sub-continent.
Press (Media) Freedom and People’s Right to Information
Another almost omnipresent principle in ethical practices is Press Freedom (I rather prefer saying Media Freedom which is more inclusive and increasingly used in the latter days). The Media Freedom has two dimensions: protection and promotion of the Freedom. The concept of Media Freedom is also given prominence in the ethical standards advocated by the West. Protection places media as the safeguard of their own independence while promotion implies seeing larger horizons to practice this freedom. In many countries including Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives and Afghanistan media professionals are still fighting for their right or Media freedom. This is more closely related with protection while they are also campaigning in favor of this freedom in almost all South Asian countries. This gives us sense that media freedom is equally important foundation of media ethics and practice in South Asian countries. Code of Conduct of Nepal gives top importance to the Protection and Promotion of Press Freedom (Clause 3 (1)):
Protection and promotion of press freedom: The freedom of expression being a basic right of the citizen, journalists and media will always remain firm, vigilant and alert in its protection and promotion.
Media are entrusted with the duty to uphold people’s right to information. As each individual can’t go to the source to seek information that s/he needs, it is the media that exercise this right on behalf of the individuals. It is the only basis for the legitimacy of the media and the power they exercise. Hence, it is the top duty of the press and of course, it can’t be ignored in the ethical practice. Hence, all the codes have given top priority to this. Code of Conduct adopted by Newspapers, News Agencies and Journalists of Bangladesh (1993) mentions about the duty of the journalists in the first clause:
It is the responsibility of a journalist to keep people informed of issues which influence them or attract them. News and commentaries have to be prepared and published showing full respect to the sensitivity and individual rights of the newspaper readers as well as the people.
Code of Ethics of the All-India Newspaper Editors’ Conference (1953) has kept the right in the topmost (clause 1), however linked with formation of public opinion:
As the press is a primary instrument in the creation of public opinion, journalists should regard their calling as a trust and be eager to serve and guard their public interests.
The journalistic code of ethics (2003) is more comprehensive about the Right to Information in Nepal:
3(3) Safeguard and enforce the right to information: Always remain active and dedicated to safeguarding the right of people to be well informed.
Freedom of Speech and expression
Generally, the respect and trust media persons acquire is because they are thought to be upholding people’s Freedom of Speech and Expression and Right to Information. Freedom of Speech and expression is very closely related with Democracy. The democratic countries are more likely to ensure these rights. However, the system of government in many of the South Asian nations is like hide and seek between the democracy and authoritarianism. Countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan have witnessed a number of military intrusions in the politics and countries like Nepal and Bhutan have seen the authoritarian Monarchy. India has largely practiced democracy except the interruption during 1975-1977 emergency rule by Indira Gandhi.
Such political turmoils through history have strongly established the importance of people’s right to information. Journalists are also aware that unless, people’s right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is not guaranteed, they have very little to do. The concept explicitly comes from the West but it has been well established in the practice of media ethics in this sub-continent.
Yes, of course the respect to individual Privacy gives important and common basis for ethics. However, the western standards are more individualistic while in Eastern civilization, collective privacy well being is preferred more. But the ethical standards adhered in this subcontinent regarding Privacy are guided by the western standards- individual privacy. Because of this contradiction, the practice is inconsistent and frequent breaches are reported across the sub-continent. Besides, the rise of Internet has again invited greater discourse about privacy because they seem to be uncaring about individual privacy.
Commitment to Human Rights
The concept of individual freedom or Human Rights is also basically a concept from the West, which has become a buzzword after UN adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. I have been maintaining that as compared to the West, the East believed in the collective freedom and rights, guided by Confucianism. Not only in media ethics, but also in politics and other social systems, collective freedom is given primacy. Among media practitioners, it seems that neither they have become able to totally adhere the western parameters nor the Eastern. However, in recent days, media’s perception of Rights is more identical and individualistic with the Western definition of Human Rights. It can be observed in almost all country’s code of conduct for media. Above-mentioned Freedom of Speech and expression, Press Freedom, Right to Information and Privacy are also the important human rights.
Clause 3(2) of Nepal’s code of Conduct for Journalists mentions:
Respect for humanitarianism, human rights and international relations: Enhance the protection and promotion of democracy, justice, equality, humanitarianism, peace and international understanding and fraternity among friendly nations, while at the same time respecting the rights, interests, principles, norms and practices guaranteed by international instruments concerned with human rights.
6. Weaknesses and challenges
Ethics are moral obligations. There are hardly any legal actions to those who violate it. Only moral pressure can be exerted upon the violators. That’s why the role of professional bodies in the implementation of code of ethics is emphasized. As stronger the professional bodies, so smoother the implementation of the codes. Hence, the representation of journalists and their professional organizations in the formation of the press councils are emphasized. The councils are also entrusted with the rights to take some punitive actions like curtailing the government subsidies, seeking clarifications from the violators, suspension of newspaper publication for certain time6 and cancellation of the press accreditation card of the journalists who violate it. There lies the problem. Sometimes, the Press councils may go beyond their jurisdiction.7
The journalists have been criticizing such rights of the Council which they think permits to act arbitrarily. While, in some other countries including Nepal, the Press Council authorities think that they are not given sufficient rights to take action against the violators of the code of conduct. These perceptions are creating confusions and the press is also many times subject to the government control.
Besides, as the ethics are moral obligations, greater level of consensus and understanding among the journalists is vital. However, the journalists are very badly divided in some of the South Asian countries. The rift between the Pro-BNP and Pro-Awami league journalists is so bitter that journalists have failed even to form an umbrella organization. Such bitterness can be felt between pro-Sinhalese and pro-Tamil press in Pakistan and pro-government and pro-opposition journalists in Maldives. Journalists are leveled as either affiliated to this or that party even in Nepal as well. Such divisions and partisan politics impede the understanding, creating difficulty in the implementation of the journalistic code of ethics.
Most of the journalistic codes we discussed above are targeted at the press and exclude the electronic media. Even twenty years ago, electronic media were thought too sensitive to leave in the hands of the private sector. Even there were stricter regulations when the countries pioneered in opening up the electronic media market to the private sector. Now, most of the countries in South Asia have liberalized the media market and mushrooming of private electronic media is experienced. There are also debates and confusions over the jurisdiction of Press Council whether it can also regulate (in terms of implementing the code of conduct) the electronic media. Journalists in the countries like Nepal have been advocating for the separate body for electronic media while Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has already been set up in Pakistan with the jurisdiction to devise a Code of Conduct for programmes and advertisements for the electronic media.
Rise of Internet is another challenge in the implementation of journalistic ethics. According to Kshetri (2008), ‘the governments and law enforcing agencies across the world are toiling hard to regulate this new means of communication’. It is also very important in setting up ethical standards for the conduct of this New Media.
Looking ahead: An integrative model of media ethics for South Asia
From the above discussion, we can conclude that the practice of media ethics in South Asia is identical. A lot of common values are found. They are also adhering to the Western principles while promoting their indigenous ones. Sometimes, the distinction between the Western and Eastern standards does not become distinct while many times there are strong contradictions. It is evident in the definition of Privacy, Human Rights and also the freedom of speech and expression. Unlike the West, collective freedom and privacy is stressed in the Indian civilization. The ethical principles like non-violence, patriotism and postcolonial feeling and Brotherhood and Fraternity bear somehow different and indigenous meaning for the South Asia.
It is also evident that South Asian media have adopted a lot of theses from the West. The practice of media system is close to Social Responsibility in many countries, which has prompted the formulation and implementation of journalistic code of ethics in these countries. However, as there is hide and seek between the democracy and authoritarianism, the lack of consistency is felt.
I have also stressed the possibility of looking for common ground for ethical practices in the South Asian countries. I believe that with more common forums and discussions, the primacy of Eastern values in the practice of Media Ethics can be identified and exercised. Efforts are made through South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)4 to find out such commonalities. The formation of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) and its recognition by the SAARC is a positive step towards it. SAFMA is praised for the exchanges between the journalist colleagues of the region and articulation of common concerns.
Other organizations like South Asia Trust; its publication South Asian and Himal Southasian magazines, Panos South Asia and its Panos Radio South Asia may very well serve for this purpose of facilitating debates towards finding and defining common ethical grounds. Himal Southasian’s effort to define South Asia as one word ‘Southasia’ is already a step towards it. The latest effort towards finding commonality in media practice is TV South Asia. The joint undertaking of different TV channels in Nepal (Image Channel), India (Tara News), Pakistan (Aaj TV), Sri Lanka (MTV Groups) and Bangladesh (RTV) was launched on the eve of the 14th SAARC Summit (May 3-4, 2007) in New Delhi, India.
The positive note towards these efforts is the increasing relevance of the SAARC. Influenced by the success of the European Union, the discussions for free movements across South Asia for the South Asian citizens and common currencies are slowly getting momentum. South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) can be taken as an example. If everybody realizes the historical and cultural affinities between and among the South Asian nations common grounds for the practice of media ethics can be sought, established and practised.
Source:*The article was published at KC, B. (ed.) (2009). MBM Anthology of Media Ethics. Kathmandu, Communication Study Centre, Madan Bhandari Memorial College.
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